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Department of Education Civil-Rights Arm Launches Investigation into Florida Mask-Mandate Ban

Students wearing protective masks arrive for classes on the first day of school in Miami-Dade County amid the coronavirus pandemic at Barbara Goleman Senior High School in Miami, Fla., August 23, 2021. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Following the cues of President Joe Biden, the civil-rights arm of the Department of Education has launched a probe into Florida’s mask-mandate ban, which went back into temporary effect Friday after the First District Court of Appeals in Florida ended the pause on the measure.

The investigation will determine whether the Florida Department of Education may be denying the rights of students with disabilities by prohibiting school districts from requiring that masks be worn on their campus premises, the Miami Herald reported. A chain of legal battles was first triggered after Republican governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order leaving the choice to send children to school with masks to parents, rather than local school boards.

After some school districts defied the order and mandated masks for students and faculty anyway, DeSantis threatened to suspend their salaries and funding and escalated the cases to the Florida courts. In late August, the state followed through on the warning and revoked financial resources, including compensation for a number of school officials from Broward and Alachua public schools for not complying with the directive.

In response, Secretary of Education Cardona, under Biden’s direction, announced that the administration would consider pursuing legal action through a civil-rights law provision, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, against Republican governors banning mask mandates.

Just a couple of weeks later, Cardona announced civil-rights probes against Oklahoma, South Carolina, Iowa, Tennessee, and Utah, signaling the possibility of future litigation. In letters it sent to education leaders, the department’s Office of Civil Rights said it would be “closely monitoring” the conduct of those states.

Florida is the next in line to face federal scrutiny, likely triggered by the back-and-forth legal challenges between DeSantis and state courts over the mask-mandate ban in recent weeks.

Critics of the governor’s action claim that it subjects vulnerable students to an unsafe learning environment, giving them justification to levy discrimination complaints against the state and appeal to the Office of Civil Rights. Proponents, however, argue that the measure doesn’t outlaw masks, but merely the mandate of masks for young children on school grounds, deferring to parents rather than school boards to make the decision.

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Colin Powell, R.I.P.

We had substantial disagreements but recognize that he will be remembered for a long, consequential career of service to a country that he loved.